Mountain Near Death Valley Cleared for Nuclear Waste

Underground site ready if the Senate changes hands

The long-delayed report says the mountain meets the required structures needed to store radioactive materials. (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yucca Mountain, part of a ridgeline that sits 100 miles from Las Vegas and less than 50 miles from Death Valley National Park, has been cleared by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for use as a depository for nuclear waste, according to the New York Times. A long-awaited report (PDF) by the commission released Thursday confirmed that the site meets the basic requirements to safely store radioactive material for hundreds of thousands of years, as required by a 2004 decision by the federal Court of Appeals in Washington.

In 1982, the Energy Department selected Yucca Mountain—known for its proximity to the Nevada Test Site, where hundreds of nuclear bombs were tested during the Cold War—as one of five candidate sites for depositing radioactive waste that the department had agreed to collect from reactor owners, in accordance with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Congress has zeroed in on Yucca Mountain for this purpose since 1987, and in 1994, the Energy Department began drilling a five-mile tunnel through the mountain to test its capacity for storing nuclear waste.

John M. Shimkus, a Republican congressman from Illinois who is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the report “confirms what we’ve expected all along: Nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land, will be safe and secure for at least a million years,” in a statement to the Times.

Timothy Frazier, a former Energy Department official who heads the nuclear waste program at the Bipartisan Policy Center, agreed. “If the Senate flips, you’re going to get money in the Senate appropriations bill to do something for Yucca Mountain,” he said.

While many Republicans in Congress have taken the commission’s Thursday findings as a green light, opinions haven’t always been divided along party lines. Nevada governor Brian Sandoval, also a Republican, has voiced his opposition to the Yucca Mountain plan since at least 2010, when he wrote a letter of concern to then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “The state of Nevada does not support the location of any such site within the state and will oppose any attempt to either resurrect the defunct Yucca Mountain project or locate an interim storage facility at Yucca,” the governor wrote at the time, indicating the State of Nevada’s willingness to sue the Energy Department if necessary.

Nevada senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, has blocked further funding for the Energy Department to design the repository and pursue a license to open it. “Yucca was originally selected because of a flawed, non-scientific and political process,” Senator Reid wrote on his website. “It failed because Nevadans, with good reason, overwhelmingly opposed it.” Following Reid’s lead, President Obama promised to kill the project if elected during his 2008 campaign.

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